I began my opera journey when there were no cell phones, no i pods, and people who had music education. They came because they really wanted to be there for the music, for the joy of hearing an adored performer. They knew what they were hearing and were willing to sit for hours concentrating on what was going on. That was part of my education, a live informed audience, a feeling audience. An uproar of approval was exhilarating, silence fascinating. Sometimes the audience activity shifted the show from stage to auditorium. Anything was possible.
There was a performance of "Zauberflüte" in the summer of 1964 in Munich. The Queen of the Night finished her first act aria, a killer, and there was dead silence. Deservedly so. The singing was bad. (I'm being polite). The conductor should have moved right along. Instead there was silence. Ten seconds in theater time is a long time. Then, from up in the balcony one voice bellowed, "BOO!". More silence. Someone downstairs countered, "Bravo!". More silence, and then, as if the house was split down the middle, the whole place erupted with boos and bravos. Bedlam. It became an audience show. Forget Mozart. Forget decorum. It became a show within a show. Eventually the audience calmed down and the opera resumed. I don't remember the soprano's name, but I'll never forget that audience. And I remember with a smile. Live opera.
There was a "Cavalleria Rusticana" at the New York City Opera one Easter Sunday. Just before the "Regina Coeli" some female in the side balcony started screaming religious imprecations. Other audience members started yelling back at her to be quiet. Of course, this disruption stopped the performance. Into this mix add the lead soprano who stepped up to the footlights and hollered, "SHUT UP! We're trying give a performance". While all the yelling was going on the Security people located the crackpot and escorted her out of the auditorium. The performance resumed. Nobody talked about the music at intermission. The talked about the nut case in the theater.
There have been productions of tragedies that have tickled the audience. The Marx Brothers did a fine job on "Trovatore" in "A Night at the Opera". That same opera was presented several years ago in New York, conceived as a very serious opera, but flawed, funny-flawed. When the action finally reached the tenor entrance in the Monastary scene the audience cracked up, roared with laughter, stopped the show cold, stopped for at least three minutes. Oh, that staging should have been preserved beyond the first performance. It would have been a sellout every night. It was satire at its best, not planned, but totally wonderful. The audience loved it. Me too.
The audience will express adoration, storm the stage, send flowers. The audience is part of the joy of opera. The audience is live, vibrant, unpredictable.